09/25/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Break the Cycle of Hate

On Saturday, a 31-year-old Columbia University professor, Dr. Prabhjot Singh was attacked by a group of mostly African-American teens on bikes, while walking home from the university's campus in New York City. The victim is a Sikh and wears a turban and beard, and he was mistakenly identified as a Muslim by the teens, who shouted "Osama" and "terrorist," knocking him to the ground and punching him so savagely that afterward, he needed to have his jaw wired into place. In an interview with The Huffington Post the next day, he said the group of kids at first didn't seem any different from the harmless youth he typically saw walking home with a friend at the northern edge of Central Park. Yet more than a dozen of them attacked him with fists and feet.

I was shocked and dismayed when I heard the reports of this hate crime, but even more so when I discovered that Singh is a Soros Fellow from 2005. I've been writing an occasional series of posts about the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship, a program that grants financial support to especially promising immigrants or children of immigrants. Paul and Daisy Soros, Hungarian immigrants themselves, established their fellowship program for New Americans in 1997 because they wanted to offer assistance to young New Americans pursuing graduate studies. Being selected honors an individual's immense potential to make a significant contribution in a given field.

There are some profound, heartbreaking ironies here. A medical doctor by training, Singh, in the past, has spoken out against discrimination. He has lent his voice to the New York Times in an effort to urge the government to accurately document hate crimes. So he's acutely aware of how tensions between the West and extremist Islamic factions have sparked unjustified hatred of not only Muslims, but also Sikhs, because of their superficial resemblance to practicing Muslims who wear different kinds of turbans. The shallowness of the discrimination Sikhs face makes crimes such as this so disheartening. Sikhs have nothing in common with political or religious extremists of any sort. Simply because of his appearance, the teens jeered and branded him as a terrorist. He is precisely the opposite.

The Soros Fellowship informed me that many groups are currently the target of hate crimes in this country: Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, as well as those with alternative sexual orientations. Only a month ago, a 21-year-old transgendered woman was killed a few blocks from where Prabhjot was assaulted. David Goodman, of the New York Times, reports: "This year, through Sept. 15, the police recorded 205 hate crimes, including 9 classified as anti-Muslim. Over the same period in 2012, there were 270 hate crimes, including 5 against victims who the attackers believed were Muslim."

About this attack, the Fellowship writes:

The attack against Singh directly contradicts these quintessentially American values. Yet we are inspired by his example. In the aftermath of the attack, he has only reinforced his message of education, engagement, and awareness, calling for a dialogue with his attackers --not for retribution or division. He invited them to come to his gurdwara, or place of worship. He wants to know them and understand them, and be known by them.

There is one consolation in this story. The assault ended when pedestrians gathered and intervened. In all of this I recognize the lineaments of both evil and good, something I've seen all my life -- and it only confirms that our brains are hard-wired to spot those who are different and ostracize them. But it also underscores that we can choose against our instincts. We have triggers built into our nature that, under stress and peer pressure and out of fear, fuel the aggression that ends in ugly encounters like this. The more we're aware of this inclination to taunt and reject whomever is unlike us -- especially those only superficially different from us -- the more we can disarm the impulses in ourselves that end in hate.

Singh himself chose to short-circuit the vicious cycle of hate by calmly reflecting on the causes for the assault, in the Times story.

He said on Monday that, in keeping with the Sikh tradition of disciplined optimism, he hoped to turn the attack into something positive and move away from "this feedback cycle of turban-beard-terrorist." The assault came hours after worldwide reports of an attack by armed Islamic extremists on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Dr. Singh suggested that the return of terrorism to television screens could have influenced his attackers. "Every time there is a flare-up in the news, I can feel it."

We, as families and communities, and as a nation, have much work to do. As Singh's instincts and heart have told him, the answer is not about just punishing these kids or any other wrongdoers. Our constant response should focus on how we impart knowledge and compassion to those who need it most: the ones filled with hatred. It's about education. It's about role models. It's about how we all behave, and how all of us walk the walk in large ways and small, every day.

This incident says something about how all of us need to do more in our own lives. These misguided kids didn't land from Mars. Their behavior emerged from a culture that breeds an intolerance we've all helped to create whenever we choose sides. This story is as much about us as it is about them.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.
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